Plaintiff’s Claims Don’t Hold Water – Judge Tosses ‘Shape of Water’ Copyright Suit

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In June, I reported on a copyright infringement case concerning Oscar-winning film, The Shape of Water. The suit was filed in February in the U.S. District Court in Los Angeles, on the same day that the Academy voters started filling out their final ballots for nominees (coincidence?). In May, Defendants, Guillermo del Toro and Twentieth Century Fox Film. Corp., among others, filed a motion to dismiss the case asserting that no legally cognizable similarities existed between the film and Plaintiff’s play, “Let Me Hear You Whisper.” According to Plaintiff, the son of Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, Paul Zindel, both plots are substantially similar because they feature a lonesome, “seemingly unexceptional cleaning lady” who forms a “deep, compassionate bond” with an intellectually-gifted aquatic creature. Therefore, he asserted, the film infringes on the play’s intellectual property. But the judge disagreed, and on July 23, dismissed the lawsuit with prejudice.

In order to successfully state a claim for copyright infringement, a plaintiff must show (1) ownership of a valid copyright, and (2) copying of constituent elements of the work that are original. And in ruling on a motion to dismiss, the court must determine whether the complaint raises a reasonable expectation that discovery will reveal evidence of an alleged infraction and must find that the factual allegations are enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level.

In his opinion dismissing the lawsuit, U.S. District Judge Percy Anderson held that while the play and the film “share the basic premise of an employee at a scientific facility deciding to free a creature that is subjected to scientific experiments, that concept is too general to be protected.” He also held that the film includes many storylines that the play does not and that “despite some superficial similarities and some shared basic plot points, the stories….are different.” Notably, the play takes place entirely within a laboratory and its adjoining rooms in New York City, while the film takes place in various settings around Baltimore. This is one factor, among many, that the judge considered in his ruling. Also, the play includes “an explicit anti-animal experimentation message and an anti-war sentiment, and it urges people speak up against authority,” whereas the film “explores numerous different themes…such as the power of friendship and love.” The opinion analyzes other aspects of the works too, including pacing, mood, dialogue, and characters. Taken together, the lack of similarities found among the elements in both works resulted in the dismissal.

Because the judge found the works were not similar “as a matter of law,” he also ruled that Plaintiff could not amend his complaint. The Court ruled that Defendants are entitled to recover the costs of defending against the claims.

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